Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book Write-Up: Song of Redemption, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  Song of Redemption.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2005.

Song of Redemption is the second novel in Lynn Austin’s Chronicles of the Kings series.  The first three books of the series focus on the righteous biblical King Hezekiah, who ruled Judah during the eighth century B.C.E.  The last two books are about Hezekiah’s son and successor, the wicked King Manasseh.  See here for my review of the first book of this series, Gods and Kings.

All of Lynn Austin’s books that I have read so far, and this includes her Restoration Chronicles about post-exilic Israel, deal in some way with the struggle to have faith, and with people who have different spiritual beliefs.  Song of Redemption is no different.  And yet, I have to say that Song of Redemption is my favorite of Lynn Austin’s books so far because of how it addresses these issues.

There is Shebna, King Hezekiah’s right hand man, Hezekiah’s tutor when Hezekiah was a child, an Egyptian and an atheist.  Shebna has little problem supporting Hezekiah’s religious reforms of eliminating idolatry, encouraging the nation to obey the Torah, and centralizing worship in Jerusalem.  Shebna acknowledges that the Torah has good values (even though he believes that it has quite a bit of exaggeration and myth), and he thinks that Hezekiah’s reforms are elevating the morale of the nation.  But Shebna only supports the reforms when they demonstrate concrete and practical benefit, and, not surprisingly, he is unwilling to take leaps of faith.  When King Hezekiah decides to heed the prophet Isaiah’s advice on how to deal with the Assyrian invaders by sitting back and trusting God, Shebna thinks Hezekiah is committing national suicide!  Overall, however, Shebna is a loyal and trustworthy adviser.  He can be blackmailed on account of things that happened in the first book, and he wavers a bit in his loyalty, but he is a fairly decent person.

There is Jerimoth, a Northern Israelite.  The Assyrians come into his town, slaughter or maim inhabitants, and capture Jerimoth’s daughter, Jerusha.  When Hezekiah sends a messenger to the north to invite Northern Israelites to come to Jerusalem and keep the religious festivals, Jerimoth decides to go, thinking this could influence God to bring his daughter back to him.  In Jerusalem, Jerimoth makes friends with Hilkiah and Hilkiah’s son, Eliakim, who were in the first book.  Hilkiah encourages Jerimoth to hold on to his faith that God will return Jerimoth’s daughter to him, but Eliakim thinks that his father is wrong to encourage Hilkiah in this way: did not Hilkiah pray for his wife and Eliakim’s mother, and yet she still died?  In a beautiful passage, Hilkiah and Eliakim are arguing about this after Jerimoth had gone to bed, and Jerimoth comes out and interrupts them.  Jerimoth says that it is his choice to have faith, even if what he is believing does not appear likely, by human standards.

There is Hephzibah, the wife of Hezekiah.  In the first book, she was discouraged because Hezekiah was ignoring her, preferring his concubines to her.  Hezekiah’s reason was that Hephzibah was given to him as a result of some political deal his father had made, and that alienated him from her.  When Hezekiah is convicted by the Torah that he should only have one wife, he puts away his concubines and becomes committed to Hephzibah alone, and he falls in love with her.  Hephzibah does not particularly care for the Torah, however, and for understandable reasons.  When she loses her baby, she wants for Hezekiah to hold her and to comfort her, but Hezekiah does not do so because that would violate the Torah’s purity laws surrounding childbirth.  When Hezekiah tells her that she needs to offer a sin offering after a certain period of time to be purified, she refuses because she does not believe that she sinned in childbirth.  As the years go by and she does not give Hezekiah an heir, she is tempted to seek help from the goddess Asherah.  Her mother encourages her in this, saying that she never bought into all those rules of the Torah, and that she thought that Asherah was a more suitable deity for women because Asherah understood women’s issues.

The book has technical details, since it is partly about Hezekiah’s attempts to build a water tunnel so that Jerusalem could have water during a potential siege by the Assyrians.  What is odd is that the prophet Isaiah chastises him for relying on the tunnel when he should be trusting in God, and, even after Hezekiah agrees with Isaiah, Hezekiah still supports Eliakim’s attempts to finish the tunnel.

The end of the book was a bit anticlimactic: the vicious Assyrians suddenly leave and head back to Nineveh, without attacking Jerusalem, and that convinces Shebna that there might be something to Hezekiah’s God.  I wondered if this was how Lynn Austin was depicting the dramatic story in the Bible about the Assyrians taunting Jerusalem, Hezekiah pouring his heart out to God, and an angel slaughtering the Assyrians, and, if so, why she would present that in such a terse, anticlimactic manner.  Did she have a page limit?  It looks, though, as if the next book of the series will be about that dramatic story.  I did not entirely mind Austin presenting the Assyrians leaving and going back to Nineveh in a low-key (yet surprising) manner, however, for that allowed the focus to be on Shebna’s religious journey.

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